It wasn’t so long ago that Major League Soccer started pushing its clubs to develop youth academies. They were seen as a way for teams to develop young talent outside of the college and high school system, a way for MLS to breed the next generation of American stars at home.
Suddenly, though, the best young players in MLS are foreigners, and those young American stars are all heading to Germany. MLS is scrambling to figure out its place in this new soccer world.
Take last week as an example. Atlanta United lifted MLS Cup in just its second year, thanks to an Argentine coach, Tata Martino, and mid-20s stars Josef Martínez from Venezuela and Miguel Almirón from Paraguay. Atlanta will be replacing one or both with 25-year-old Argentine attacker Pity Martínez, who scored for River Plate in the recent Copa Libertadores final.
Meanwhile, Germany’s Bundesliga seems to be filling up with young Americans. Forward Josh Sargent scored with his very first touch for Werder Bremen. Schalke depends so much on Weston McKennie that it’s played him everywhere from center back to forward this year. Schalke also recently handed a first league start to American striker Haji Wright.
Then there’s MLS’s best young player, Tyler Adams, who is headed for RB Leipzig. Alphonso Davies, who is admittedly Canadian and not American, is moving from Vancouver to Bayern Munich for an MLS-record transfer fee.
Those are just the well-known names. This time next year you could be hearing more about others such as Giovanni Reyna or Jonathan Klinsmann or Chris Richards. Germany, which has always had a pragmatic attitude toward player development, seems to be the first to have figured out the new truth: America’s young players are getting better and better, and are more and more hungry to develop themselves in Germany.
Both of these trends leave MLS in a curious spot. The league has been American-powered from the beginning, with a sprinkling of foreign talent. But that talent used to be either big-name Europeans on the back end of their careers or middling Latin Americans coming north of the border. Increasingly, though, it’s a stepping stone for young Americans and young foreign players on their way to higher-profile European soccer.
MLS commissioner Don Garber understands this. At his annual state-of-the-league address, he told reporters MLS must ‘‘become more of a selling league,” saying it was “hard to justify the investment we’ve made in development.” It’s the strongest signal yet that MLS views its future as a provider of talent.
Though this might leave some fans indignant about the league’s place in the global soccer landscape, being a provider of talent is by no means a death sentence. Leagues such as those in Portugal and the Netherlands are regularly raided by bigger clubs in Europe and they survive just fine. The United States, which is both geographically and culturally equidistant from Europe and South America, might be the perfect conduit for talent across the Americas.
MLS might not be the final destination, but being a step along the road isn’t so bad, either.
Writer Jon Marthaler gives you a recap of recent events and previews the week ahead. • firstname.lastname@example.org